Why Badging Offers a Better Way to Document Student Learning

The current system that K-12 schools use for measuring, recording, and reporting student learning in the…

By Dr. Lauren J Bierbaum

The current system that K-12 schools use for measuring, recording, and reporting student learning in the U.S. revolves around two things: report cards and high school transcripts. Those high school transcripts, however, often obscure or distort learner progress. They don’t give a complete picture of what an individual student has mastered, whether it’s quadratic equations or the ability to write a coherent argument. Transcripts also don’t pinpoint where a student is weak, even if they’ve gotten a passing grade in a course. 

What Is Badging?

At XQ, we’re rethinking what high school education can look like for students in their day-to-day classroom learning and how to better document student learning. One solution is badging.

Badges are a familiar term in fields like scouting, where participants earn merit badges for activities ranging from archery to wilderness survival as they progress along a specific pathway of achievement. In schools, the typical A-F letter grades operate somewhat like low-quality badges, because they signal a student’s progress. But they’re too broad to communicate anything about actual skills or knowledge. 

Educators could opt for more high-quality badges to measure, record, and report a student’s mastery of different competencies within a subject, in place of, or as complements to, grades, transcripts, or high-stakes tests. To explore the potential for badges in the K12 system, I spoke with Dr. Danielle Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics, about a paper she co-authored entitled: “A Call to More Equitable Learning: How Next-Generation Badging Improves Education for All.” Below are highlights of our conversation about how badging can be a better way of measuring and recording student achievement—and a more equitable one, too. 

What do you like so much about badging?

A lot of people have been excited about badging for a long time for the reason that it can make learning more visible. Students can accumulate diverse sets of badges that suit their personalized learning journeys. And it can make learning more equitable by giving students more options and tools for communicating what they’ve mastered.

“Badging” is a broad concept that includes knowledge and also skills. That’s the great thing about it; it introduces more flexibility. Once you can validate student mastery, you can award the student a badge. So instead of giving them a grade or giving them a test score, they can accumulate a set of badges that all communicate the specific competencies that they’ve mastered.

Absolutely. We also know there’s really no such thing as “the average learner”—every student is unique, and having more options to get to the same place, to get every student to achieve the desired XQ Learner Outcomes, will mean we will see more and more students succeeding. Your paper’s title refers to “More Equitable Learning.” Can you explain why?

We know there are a lot of challenges right now that generate inequities in students’ learning opportunities and successes. So there’s a question of what kinds of learning opportunities students have access to, as well as the question of how to recognize the different learning styles students bring to the table and whether or not any given learning environment can meet and match those learning styles. And finally, in addition to all those challenges, there’s real variation across socioeconomic contexts of who’s equipped to communicate that out-of-classroom learning. 

Students are stuck with a system that doesn’t rely on their truly having to learn anything. And colleges and employers are stuck with proxies for student learning that say more about how long a student sat in front of some material rather than how much of that material they actually absorbed.

Right. Take, for example, a kid who’s growing up in a first-generation immigrant family and may be speaking another language at home. Now they have a chance to badge that mastery in, say, Portuguese—which isn’t taught in their school—and they can bring that competency to the table when they’re applying for a job or college. So, this competency-based approach connected to a badging strategy gives learners more tools for communicating what they’re learning and mastering and provides more tools for shaping their learning journey to suit their best potential.

Dr. Danielle Allen (Courtesy of the Lyceum Agency)

Badging also creates pathways that support students’ journey toward mastery rather than erecting barriers to success. By certifying learning in smaller units, badges allow students to move on from what they know and focus on what they still need to learn rather than sitting through a generic, standard scope and sequence. This is particularly important because some classes with high failure rates, such as Algebra I, become barriers to achieving college readiness—even though students may ace 90 percent of algebra content. To this end, at XQ we’re experimenting with partners in four states to create a series of math badges that address precisely this issue. We are working with Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, and Rhode Island to map out how badging infrastructure and partnerships need to work. And, of course, as we learn more, we’ll bring those learnings forward to the field.

Why Now is the Right Moment for Badging in Education

Why should schools try badging now?

Two things make this the moment. The first is the pandemic, which disrupted education, and it’s given us all a chance to think about how we want to better support student learning. Then, at the same time, it’s this sort of wonderful, kind of historical accident that research has advanced and delivered some clarity about how to achieve the validity that you need for a badging system to work and be cross-comparable across contexts.

We also benefit from the most recent and cutting-edge knowledge in the science of adolescent learning. We know that learning sticks when it feels relevant to students’ lives, and badges are more amenable to real-world projects and applied scenarios than traditional course structures or assessments. It’s explicit in your paper that universities and other education systems are part of those conversations and have to be. XQ agrees—our Math Badging pilot engages not only state departments of education, but also higher ed partners. What role does higher ed need to play for high school badging systems to really take hold?

We’ve established that badging is a strategy for measuring, recording, and reporting student learning. But then, once you start to do that, you are really talking about the education infrastructure more broadly. And there’s a lot of work to do on how we reorganize that infrastructure to support this strategy. In that regard, universities and colleges are important for supplying expertise to help populate badging boards that can provide an external review of the validity criteria for badges. Additionally, higher education institutions must be involved because if this is going to work, then admissions processes must also make use of badges as a part of a student’s application portfolio.

How do we set up the structure so that badging avoids the pitfalls of other previous accreditation regimes, such as the Carnegie Unit? 

I think the answer will come down to how we constitute a badging board—the body of trusted, recognized experts who can give credence to any badging system, the way that the Carnegie Unit or College Board give credence to other (and, I would argue, weaker) proxies for learning. It will have to be a body that is prepared to see and understand competencies that extend beyond some of the traditional categories for competence. So I think what’s going to be an essential part of the work we do in this pilot phase is to understand how to make sure that a full picture of competencies can be measured. 

Do you think that the existence of a competency-based badging system could enable teachers to teach in a way that would be more powerful and innovative? 

That’s definitely the goal. I think anytime that you seek to improve learning, you have to also be seeking to improve teaching. So, I think one of the things I have always been excited about—about the badging approach to measuring and documenting student learning—is that it draws on learning from the space of formative assessment; where what you’re trying to do is evaluate how students are learning and give them feedback about their learning journey. And any educator who has a chance to think intentionally about formative assessments has a huge opportunity to personalize their teaching practice for the students in their room.

So in that regard, I think that we’ve made an argument for a badging ecosystem where you’ve got badges at a couple of different levels–portfolio level badges, macro badges, we call them. Then those are constituted by sets of mezzo badges that are the ones that document the particular competencies that are being learned. And then micro badges, where students are  making essential learning milestones in the classroom at that formative assessment level. 

I love that! In addition to badges at different levels, it raises the question of how to create viable badges across different contexts. In XQ’s Math Badging work, and as we think even more broadly about badging opportunities beyond math, XQ ultimately wants to engage out-of-school time learning providers, informal education organizations, internship leaders, and formal employers to incorporate learning that happens beyond, not just within, the school walls as well. So long as the badges themselves are truly and reliably representative of rigorous learning, they can extend to settings where learning has always happened, but not always been accredited.

What’s Next for Badging? 

How do we make this live in the world?

One of the amazing things about this is that many people out there are already experimenting with badges. Before we published the paper, we thought we’d done a complete landscape analysis, but we’ve gotten more incoming people saying, “We’re doing this, we’re doing this already, come see us, come visit, come learn!” There’s a lot of excitement and energy that’s great to see. 

And that says that first, we do what we’re doing now, which is the proof-of-concept pilot. One in which the XQ team working on algebra, and the Democratic Knowledge Project team working on civics, will go ahead and complete the production of our badges as well as form pilot badging boards to do the validation work and establish the credibility of the badges.

And then the other crucial part of the proof-of-concept pilot is the work with educators and learners around the use of badges. So that using them could be integrated into teaching, learning, practice, and experience. So that’s the kind of work immediately at hand. 

But of course, as we’re doing that, we’ve also got a plan looking forward to the sort of implementation, pilot stage. There are some fundamental questions to answer about how the introduction of this new strategy and method intersects with the existing landscape for assessment and measuring, documenting, and reporting student learning.

Why did your Democratic Knowledge Project focus on civics for badging?

We’ve been working on how you measure and document learning journeys at the Democratic Knowledge Project for about 15 years. In parallel, we were working on civic learning and civic education and trying to build new curricular opportunities for students. When you create new curricular opportunities, you have to answer the question of how you’re going to measure that student learning. Then we were able to take the work we were doing and think about badging and say, “Let’s try it out here in civics first; let’s get started here and see if we can make this work.” So that’s how it came together for us.

Part of the reason that XQ is so excited about civics is because of the obvious need we see in the field. Not unrelatedly, building on the work of Bob Moses and the Algebra Project, we also firmly believe that agility in math is core to a civil society and to civil rights. These are two content areas that are fundamental to the project of public education.

It’s just exciting to be at a point where we have enough confidence about this badging strategy to be ready to communicate it more generally and to ask for feedback. That’s the important thing to share– this is a work in progress. We’re trying to build a community of people who see the potential, and we are eager to get feedback. 

We are at the beginning of this journey and can’t wait to have others join us. We can’t not figure this out.

Download here to read “A Call to More Equitable Learning: How Next-Generation Badging Improves Education for All.” 

Photo at top by Chris Carter.